THE VILLAGES, Fla. — Sharon Sandler was already irritated as she walked toward the growing line of golf carts preparing to parade around one of her retirement community's town squares for President Trump's birthday.
Within minutes, Sandler’s silent protest devolved into a profanity-laced screaming match, with Sandler at the center. The confrontation would later draw international outrage when Trump, last Sunday morning, shared a video showing one of his supporters at the parade pumping his fist and screaming, “White power!”
The tweet was deleted hours later and the White House said Trump had not heard what the man had said. But to Sandler, who settled here a decade ago, the episode showed what Trump’s presidency has done to political discourse in a community that bills itself as a friendly, laid-back place where people 55 and older can live like millionaires on a retiree’s budget.
“I thought it was ‘America’s friendliest hometown’ like it says in all the brochures,” she said. “But I’m here, and it’s not.
“Even a lot of the Democrats down here were not supportive of me as they said, ‘they go low, we go high,’ and all that other crap. I just think it’s time for all of us to open our mouths and say enough is enough.”
The Villages, an hour’s drive northwest of Orlando, is one of the nation’s largest retirement developments, a place where residents can be seen golfing on executive courses and inline-skating down sunny streets. Almost everyone who lives there is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the community has long been a reliable bucket of Republican votes in a pivotal place, with residents routinely courted by state and national politicians.
Although Republican numerical advantages have persisted for years, locals say tensions began to escalate, much as they did across the country, in 2016, the first time Sandler slapped a “Dump Trump” sticker on her golf cart.
Some Republican villagers decided that the community’s Republican club wasn’t supportive enough of the president and started clubs like Villagers for Trump and Veterans for Trump, where they could meet with like-minded neighbors, bring in outside speakers and organize the occasional golf cart parade.
Now, political fights lead at times to physical fights, prompting some septuagenarians to pack pepper spray and stun guns into the golf carts residents use to dart around the 35-square mile community, according to some locals.
“It was never as ugly as it is now, and it has been ugly every day since the 2016 election,” said Chris Stanley, the president of the Villages Democratic Club, who says she walks a tightrope between encouraging people to speak their mind and reminding them that splenetic outbursts won’t help Democrats’ cause. “People have lost friends. They’ve lost their social group. They won’t talk publicly, because they’ll lose their golf game. Now, there are battle lines drawn.”
As for who prompted the June 14 scuffle, both sides point fingers firmly across the political aisle.
Members of Republican and Trump-supporting clubs, some of whom declined to speak on the record, said the protesters had instigated the heated confrontations by shouting epithets at people gathered for a joyful parade. Others said a man screaming “white power” went too far, even during an angry exchange. Less vocal residents worried that news reports from the event were distilled down to the most emotional elements and don’t represent the greater majority of residents who peacefully coexist.
“We’ve been through a lot of elections, a lot of differences of opinion. There’s a small group of people who get carried away and that was a pretty bad performance,” said John Calandro, the past president of the Sumter County Republican Party, who has been fielding media questions for the Republican Club at the Villages. Still, he said the racist outburst was instigated by the anti-Trump demonstrators. “If you watch the video carefully, it was an unfortunate response to an inappropriate comment. That’s not the nature of our community.”
The Villages’ Republican club also denounced the remark. “The Republican Club condemns the person who shouted ‘White Power’ at the foul-mouthed Biden supporter in the video being widely circulated in the news today,” the statement said. “Everyone we have spoken to was very surprised to see such a racist statement here, because this is indeed ‘America’s Friendliest Hometown,’ where everyone is pretty much blind to color.”
Sandler, who concedes she is more outspoken than most, said she has been a victim of small slights and outright antagonism since she began to publicly express her displeasure with the 45th president.
Originally from Connecticut, she credits her confrontational personality, and her creative use of four-letter words, to her father, who served in the Marine Corps. After working with sex-assault victims and inner-city teens her whole career, she moved to the Villages, drawn to the myriad ways to stay active and her home’s proximity to a dog park.
Villages resident Ed McGinty, 72, has been protesting Trump since 2015, shortly after he moved to the community. He often parks his golf cart on the side of a road and lets the signs plastered on the side make his point for him. His latest reads “Trump is a sexual predator.”
His relationship with more conservative Villagers has predictably soured. After he started wearing an Elizabeth Warren 2020 cap, a neighbor who’d always offered treats to his dogs stopped offering them. McGinty is okay with that. “I don’t want them to think he’s our friend.” He was kicked out of a golf foursome because of his very public political views. He found a letter in his mailbox that warned him to “be very careful if the safety of your family is of importance.” His golf cart has been rammed at least once, he said. He said he also had to clean drops of blood off it after a fistfight with a Trump supporter.
McGinty said he sees his ongoing protests as a moral obligation, and he had a similar response to the June 14 parade. He was joined by a half dozen other demonstrators, who held signs and shouted at passing golf carts.
The now-famous moment, caught on video and shared by Trump to his more than 82 million Twitter followers, took place after a demonstrator asked the man in the cart: “Where’s your white hood?” referring to costumes worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“White power, white power,” the man responded, waving his fist in the air. A woman sitting next to him repeatedly yells “Trump! Trump!”
“You see: ‘white power,’” the demonstrator told his fellow counterprotesters.
Sandler is also a prominent character in the video tweeted by Trump. At one point, a man bumps into her with his golf cart.
She has gained support from people across the world, especially after her children decided to set up her first Twitter account to capitalize on her 15 minutes of fury.
She’s received mean notes, sour Facebook messages and had other unpleasantries with fellow Villagers, but she refuses to leave her home of 10 years.
“My daughter put me on Twitter because I didn’t know how to freaking Twitter. Really for the first time in their lives, my children are saying, ‘Mom we’re really proud of you.’ If nobody cares, that’s what matters to me — all my children are proud of me.”